Ancient viral genes may give corals a new lease on life

Dec 24 2017

Ancient viral genes may give corals a new lease on life

Jumping genes could make an alga, and its coral host, more tolerant to warming sea temperatures.


Manuel Aranda      Jit Ern Chen             Gioxin Cui              Xin Wang               Yi Jin Liew

A particular gene is shown by KAUST researchers to help the heat tolerance of an alga that lives symbiotically with coral, which could potentially help Red Sea corals adapt to some warming.

Symbiodinium is a unicellular alga that provides its coral host with photosynthetic products in return for nutrients and shelter. However, high sea temperatures can cause the breakdown of this symbiotic relationship and lead to the widespread expulsion of Symbiodinium from host tissues, an event known as coral beaching. If bleached corals do not recover, they starve to death, leaving only their white, calcium-carbonate exoskeleton. 

Now, researchers from KAUST have identified special genes, called retrotransposons, which could help the algae adapt more rapidly to heat stress. 

The team, led by postdoc Jit Ern Chen and PhD student Guoxin Cui, conducted analyses to find out which genes were turned on or off when Symbiodinium was exposed to heat stress. Surprisingly, most genes commonly associated with heat stress were turned off, while a small number of retrotransposons were turned on. 

Read more on KAUST Discovery